With five Grand Slam titles for him and four for her, Byron Nelson and Susie Berning are the lord of golf… and the girl who competed in the male team at university.
John Byron Nelson Jr. – his full name – achieved unrivalled results in the history of golf. For example, finishing 65 consecutive times in the top-10, which happened from 1942 to 1946. Born on 4 February 1912 in Dallas, the Texan collected 54 career victories, including five Grand Slam titles (1937 and 1942 US Masters; 1939 US Open; and 1940 and 1945 US PGA Championship). Outside that record of top-10 finishes, “Lord Byron” (one of his more well-known nicknames) finished worse than 10th on only one occasion, tallied 34 wins and was second 16 times.
Nelson never competed in the British Open Championship, and he retired from the PGA Tour in 1946 at 34 years of age.
Nelson’s 1945 was the best season of any golfer to date: he won no fewer than 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row, and did so with an average round of 68.33 – a mark that remained intact for 55 years.
That year he won more than half of the 30 tournaments he competed in, which gives a clear idea of his overwhelming dominance in top competition. His accuracy with the irons, and in general with all clubs, was impressive, and suffice to say that he won the 1939 Western Open on the difficult Medinah 3 course near Chicago after missing the fairway just once in 72 holes.
Nelson began his association with golf as a caddy at the age of 12, months after his family had moved to Fort Worth and he had suffered from a devastating typhoid fever that caused him to lose nearly half his body weight.
An article about Nelson in Sports Illustrated noted that caddies were initially not allowed to play at the club. "He used to practise after dark, putting his white handkerchief over the hole so he could find it in the dark." The club later changed its policy and sponsored a caddies tournament in 1927, where the 14-year-old Nelson beat fellow caddy at Glen Garden Country Club and future golfing great Ben Hogan (they were born the same year, as was Sam Snead) by a single stroke after a nine-hole playoff.
Nelson turned professional in 1932, at 20, and in 1934 he was working as a professional golfer in Texarkana (Texas) when he met his future wife, Louise Shofner, to whom he was married for 50 years until she died in 1985 after two serious strokes.
He played full-time on the US PGA Tour from 1935 to 1946, but lost many opportunities of adding to his Grand Slam total because of tournament cancellations during World War II. He was exempt from military service as he suffered from haemophilia.
Interestingly, the three US-based majors were not suspended for the same number of years: the Masters was not held for three years (from 1943 to 1945), the US Open for four (from 1942 to 1945) and the PGA Championship, which at that time was still match play, during one (1943). The British Open, which Nelson never contested, was not played for six years, from 1940 to 1945.
Many golf historians consider his swing as the first modern swing. His many honours and awards include: member of the World Golf Hall of Fame since 1974; Associated Press’s Sportsman of the Year in 1944 and 1945; and winner of the PGA Tour Vardon Trophy in 1939. He topped the US money list in 1944 and 1945; played in the Ryder Cup twice; and captained the US team in 1965.
When he was at the peak of his form, and after winning six events in 1946, Nelson (at the time 34) decided to retire from competition completely and dedicate his time to a ranch he had bought in Texas. After retiring, he spent some time commentating on TV and each year hosted his eponymous tournament – the Byron Nelson Classic – on the PGA Tour. He also took various young players under his wing, including Tom Watson.
“Lord Byron”, a man of deep religious beliefs (Baptist Church) instilled by his parents, died in Roanoke (Texas) on 26 September 2006 at the age of 94. His wife Peggy Nelson died a few months later. They had married in 1986, a year after the legendary golfer was widowed by his first wife, Louise Shofner.
For Nelson, every great player had to dominate two things: concentration and nerves.
Born in Pasadena (California) on 22 July 1944, Susie Maxwell Berning came into the world at a delicate moment. It was five months before Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, which precipitated the Americans’ entry into World War II.
Susie started playing golf as a teenager, at 15 years of age, and she did so with such diligence and talent that shortly afterwards she won the first of her three consecutive Oklahoma State High School championships. After graduating from high school, she became the first woman to be offered a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University, where she competed on the men's team.
The same season she turned pro on the LPGA Tour (1964), Susie, still known by her maiden name Maxwell for four years until her marriage, won the Rookie of the Year title.
Throughout her career, she had 11 wins, including four majors: the 1965 Women's Western Open and the US Women's Open three times, in 1968, 1972 and 1973, all while balancing her family life as a mother. She was one of only six women to win the US Women's Open three or more times, the last title being secured with the biggest winning margin, five strokes.
The first of her 11 wins on the LPGA Tour came in 1965 (Muskogee Civitan Open) and her last 11 years later, in the 1976 Lady Keystone Open.
However, her form became inconsistent as she approached her thirties, with the last of three top-10 finishes on the money list coming in 1969. She remained on the Tour for many years more, although she didn’t always play full-time, including 13 tournaments in 1995 when she turned 51.
Along with Juli Inkster, Nancy Lopez and Catriona Matthew, Berning is one of only four women to have won a major on the LPGA Tour after becoming a mother. She has two daughters: Robin and Cindy.
In 1987, she recorded the first hole-in-one of her career on Tour, during the LPGA National Pro-Am.
In 1989 she won the Marilynn Smith Founders Classic, and that same year, at an unofficial tournament, the Konica San Jose Classic, Berning and Robin became the first mother and daughter to compete in the same LPGA Tour event. She also matched her career-low round of 65 during the first round of the Women's Kemper Open.
Susie made her last appearance on the LPGA Tour in 1996, and after retiring she became a highly respected teacher at the Nicklaus-Flick Golf Academy. She now divides her time between The Reserve Club in Palm Springs (California) and Maroon Creek Country Club in Aspen (Colorado).
When she reached the required age, she joined the senior circuit, and in 1997 she won the Sprint Senior Challenge with a final round 64. During the LPGA's 50th anniversary in 2000 she was recognised as one of the LPGA's top 50 players and teachers.
“Susie perfectly embodies what it means to be a Hall of Famer,” said LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan. “She was a trailblazer from when she first picked up a club throughout her amateur career, and then made a big splash once she reached the LPGA Tour. I think about the short list of individuals – male or female – who have won three US Open titles, let alone four major championships, and understand just how incredible that is. She also shortened her career when she made a decision to walk away to focus on family – something every female professional can empathise with and respect.”
"Quite an honour,” said Maxwell Berning after being named as one of the “Class of 2021” World Golf Hall of Fame inductees. “Just to be in the same room as Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Judy Rankin and Patty Berg – I tell you, I remember when I first was on the tour, just how nice Patty Berg was to me and I was scared to death, as it was the first time I ever played with Mickey. To be honoured alongside them is something I thought would never happen. I never even thought about it. I'm now part of their family, which makes me very proud."
The World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony on 9 March in Ponte Vedra Beach (Florida) coincides with The Players Championship week. Her three fellow inductees are Tiger Woods, former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and the late course designer Marion Hollins (posthumously, as she died in 1944).